I went to a really nice private school in Chicago from 6th grade through senior year. Looking back now, I do realize that I was incredibly lucky to be there. That place really had the best of everything. Whatever a student might want to succeed. Not that I ever took advantage of that. I truly was a shitty student. I just didn’t study. I hardly tried at all. I didn’t get good grades until college.
My grammar & high school report cards were full of those statements which teachers hate writing the most; “Dan is capable and occasionally displays his talents, but he simply does not apply himself. Dan does not live up to his potential.” Translation: “This kid is a complete fucking waste of my time. We all think he’s one of those partiers who will never graduate from college. We just hope he doesn’t steal jewelry from customers in his future career as a drywall installer.”
While I was a completely worthless, shitty, lazy student, there was one subject that got my undivided attention. And, this is true for every teenager. Driver’s Ed. I wanted my driver’s license so damn bad. I wanted to be “cool Dan,” behind the wheel. Cruising with the radio playing loud. Going on dates. You know. We’ve all been there. I was committed to Driver’s Ed. This is one opportunity I would not blow. I was going to be on my very best behavior and ace this course.
What I didn’t expect in this upscale private school is that the biggest hoodlum in the room wasn’t me. It was the instructor. I have no idea how this scumbag got the job.
He was a bitter, old, fat, balding, racist white guy who hated the whole world. His entire wardrobe was made up of various shades of brown, accented with faded stains. Probably gravy or barbeque sauce. I think. Also shades of brown. His yellow teeth looked like they’d also be brown in a couple years, if he lived that long. He was always sweating and breathing hard. Some vital organs were working way too hard keeping him upright. This colorless, diseased, greasy presentation was the perfect platform from which to spew miserable anger.
We were all there to prove we could be trusted behind the wheel. But, he didn’t give a shit. He didn’t use his time with us to evaluate our temperament, reflexes or depth perception. We were the audience for his rants. That was our main purpose. The best way to stay out of trouble with this guy was to nod at his sermons of hatred. Give him a few “amens.” Don’t be a pansy rich kid. Don’t be a snitch. Don’t act shocked when he complains loudly that Chinese and female drivers are fucking up the roads for everyone. We’d find out soon enough, he promised. Don’t question the appropriateness of him balling up his fists and yelling at the ceiling in front of a room full of teenagers “And God fucking help me if I get cut off by another one of those God damned little Volkswagens! Those stupid fucking cars, so little you can’t even see them. Always zipping in & out of lanes. God dammit I fucking hate them!!” Of course I never to told him I would be driving a Volkswagen.
When we left the classroom for behind-the-wheel instruction with Mr. Greasy Hatred, he set the tone for how you drive on the mean streets of Chicago. Two of us would load into the red Chevy Chevette with him. Me sweating in the driver’s seat. My friend twitching with fear in the back. Once the ignition was turned, Mr. Hatred would immediately yell at me to “Just hang on a God Damn minute, Jesus Fucking Christ already.” I thought maybe I’d forgotten to check my mirrors. Made some stupid rookie mistake. Man, was he going to unload on me. But, Greasy just needed a moment to pull out his red foil pack of unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes and light one up.
This was his pre-drive ritual. Mr. Hatred would take a long, deep drag and then explode with violent hacking…phlegm bursting loose somewhere deep inside him. He would quickly crank down the passenger window, grunting with the phlem rattling around in his throat, then launch out a dark yellow loogie to splat heavily on the hot asphalt. Next, he would flick the lit cigarette out the window, and turn red-face & sweating back at me; “I gotta quit these fucking things. Dammit. Don’t ever smoke, kid.” Yessir. “These things will kill you right fucking quick.” Yessir. “Well?” Sir? “Well, what fuck are you waiting for, dammit? Let’s get the fucking show on the road already! I don’t have all God damned day! Just do anything stupid. Now GO!!”
I got my driver’s license. And, the lessons I learned were don’t smoke Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes, don’t do anything stupid, and most importantly…don’t grow up to be anything like Mr. Greasy Hatred. I still have a great deal of anger towards a lot of things in the world. Sure I do. But, he taught me that you need to do a much better job of hiding it. Or, at least have a little more style when sharing your opinions about things you don’t like. You might even agree with a lot of what Mr. Hatred said. But, if you share all those opinions with everyone all the time, you’re going to end up a sick, lonely, miserable person. Thanks, Mr. Hatred. You taught me a lot. Now, if you’ll excuse me…I’ve gotta get the fucking show on the road. I don’t have all God damned day.
Cali can’t catch squirrels. They’re way too fast. And quick. They change direction much faster than she can. They almost seem to toy with her…turning their back on her, twitching their fat tail, shoving their head in a hole. The appearance of vulnerability, completely unaware of the danger. That’s bullshit. The squirrel hears her bolt a few steps before they quickly cut left, right, then shoot up a tree. She’s always three feet behind when they get safely out of her reach. Just three feet every time. That’s no coincidence. That’s skill and experience. They know exactly what they’re doing. Those squirrels leave her with just enough hope, let her get just close enough, that her blood is pumping hard from having “JUST missed it!!” Every time. Cali never wises up.
The squirrels clearly have the upper hand. So, I mean really, what’s the harm in letting her chase them? What the hell would she do if she ever caught one anyway? She wouldn’t know what to do. While she’s crazy for the hunt, and never tires in her earnest effort to catch one, maybe she doesn’t really expect to succeed. If a fleeing squirrel suddenly turned around and confronted her, She’d probably jump back in fear, just because she never expected to get so close. If given her shot, she would blow it. She’s no hunter.
So, it’s a game. It’s a harmless game. Maybe just some psychological damage for the dog that never gets the prize. But, she’s more than a willing player. She never gets frustrated by losing. She loves it.
Eventually chasing squirrels becomes a big part of all our walks. She spots one and immediately stiffens up like a bird dog, pointing right at it. I get down on one knee and whisper encouragement in her ear while I release her leash, still firmly holding her collar. She feels my strong grip, and she knows I haven’t let her go while she gets a pep talk; “Ohhh, look at that one Cali. It looks delicious. Nice and fat. Can you get it? Can you catch that delicious squirrel? Okay…..GO!!!” She feels my grip release and goes flying to just miss the squirrel by three feet…barking, panting, back hair up, running quick circles around the bottom of the tree, looking back at me to praise her for getting SO close. Instead, I bring her back down to earth with a hail of insults; “You’re way too slow, Cali. You got no shot. No chance. That squirrel is up there laughing at you. How humiliating for you. You’re no dog of mine. We need a real hunting dog in this family.” I go on and on loudly teasing her ineptitude. That’s the game, and we play it all the time. We have a blast.
The city’s many greenways are our preferred hunting grounds. We leave the sidewalks whenever we can. We prefer these wider and wilder spaces in between the buildings. The greenways have long, dense hedgerows. More trees. Raised flower beds. Lots of places for Cali to go crazy far from the streets and cars. Cali is always off leash in these more open spaces as we play our harmless game.
Then we meet the dumbest squirrel ever.
We’re walking in the pedestrian greenway behind the Acme grocery store, on squirrel patrol. This greenway is one of our favorites. There are long, dense hedgerows on either side with trees rising up from them like columns proudly lining of our walk. The hedges are always teaming with birds, bringing a chorus to our hunting party. Usually we just stroll through while Cali runs side to side sniffing everything. Usually not much action. Until the last time we went through there.
As we neared a tall oak, suddenly this dumb ass squirrel jumped out of the deep hedgerow and plopped down on the sidewalk right in front of her, equidistant between two trees, easily fifteen feet apart. It landed with a thud in no man’s land. One dog-length in front of Cali. Just under three feet.
It froze. It just. Fucking. Froze.
The speed of Cali’s charge shocked me. No hesitation whatsoever. With the swift confidence of a trained assassin, she was on it in a flash and immediately got in a solid, crushing bite around its middle. There was an audible sound of her jaws colliding within its body. She violently snapped her head to the side and the squirrel flew out of her mouth back into the hedge. Cali jumped in right after it with a single motion upon release, like she’d thrown it to herself. The certainty of her motions didn’t allow me time to move my feet. The whole hedge shook violently before me as branches snapped sharply. Cali’s growling was deeper and more serious than in any dogfight, when she’s usually on the defense. She was all ferocious business. Clearly intending to kill. I was actually frightened, and imagined the dark inside of the hedge was a buzz saw for my hands. I didn’t see either of them, only the savage frenzy of the hedge as it jumped, cracked and snapped. Twigs were scattering over the bricks in all directions.
Suddenly the black and white of Cali appeared with a loud snap out of the dark green hedge. She slid sideways like a speed skater to leap back into the darkness from a better angle of attack. Brutal, crazed, murderous pursuit. I took that chance to grab her collar with one hand and wrap my other arm around her lunging shoulder. Her body was rock hard. She was twitching in urgent attempts back at the bush, forcing out sharp breaths like coughs. I kept hold around her shoulders and neck. In a moment that lasted far too long, she knew I had her in my always firm grip. The force of her lunges abated somewhat. Her fierce coughs were still sharp while I somehow managed to get her back on the leash.
Shit! That all happened so fucking fast! That crushing bite was right on target. That horrible sound. A mortal wound for sure. Gotta find that squirrel. Maybe he got lucky and I could still save him. Would Cali’s vet treat a squirrel? It’s kind of late. Was the vet still open? If not, where would I take him? There’s that 24 hour vet down on Washington. My plan B. I was responsible for this. I felt the shame, the heat on my face, that pounding in my ears.
I planted my foot on Cali’s leash and was quickly on my knees, digging through the leaves under the hedge. The leaves were so deep. Especially there at the base of the tree. I kept digging, searching out wider from where Cali was trying to get back in. Nothing. Maybe it got away?
I straightened up to look around and decide what to do next. Yah! What’s this? Right at eye level was the squirrel, hanging onto the tree. He’s looking right at me. His eyes were wide with panic because clearly I’d seen him. He didn’t take his wide, black eyes off of me. But, his head shivered all around, looking for the fastest way out. That fast-twitch ability of speedy squirrels. He would be gone in an instant.
But no. He didn’t fly up the tree or leap over the brick wall behind him. He was struggling. He lunged up the tree by throwing just his front claws forward. His back claws don’t follow. He’d only moved an inch. The front claws dug into the bark and slowly pull his elongated body up into a hunch. Why was he in this odd position? I noticed he actually had a mangled back leg in his mouth. Desperately biting down so hard to bring it along. I didn’t see it on his far side. His eyes still showed panic, and his breathing was quick. He strained to pull himself up the tree with just his front claws, the rear of his body barely scraping up over the bark. Maybe just a hair.
I leaned in closer. I tried to move quickly, but not too suddenly. Hopefully my movement told him that I care, and wanted to help. Maybe I could grab him gently. I didn’t want to hurt him any worse. He was just over an arm’s reach from me.
His body then started to sway back and forth. He was losing strength. His two skinny little forelegs started to shake. As I leaned in, I swear the look in his eyes changed in a flash. His expression of sheer panic suddenly slammed into the resignation of “oh fuck, I’m not gonna make it” and then a completely blank look as he rolled backwards off the tree into the hedge. In the space of two seconds, I saw him first realize his fate, then accept it immediately and let go, give up. NO!! He couldn’t give up! I was back on my knees digging frantically through the bed of leaves. He fell right HERE. I could still get him to the vet! Where could he have gone? He should have been right there. But no, he was gone. I couldn’t find him.
I turned around, landing hard on my butt and just sat there on the sidewalk. Palms spread against the bricks to steady myself. Now I was the one breathing hard, in sharp coughs. I looked up at Cali, expecting her expression to match my wide-eyed mania. Her breathing to match my short bursts. She just looked back at me passively. Then she looked over her shoulder at some birds, calmly watching their flight over the Acme, beyond the greenway. She was so calm. It was over for her. She doesn’t feel guilt. But, I saw the squirrel’s eyes. That’s all I could see. Those sharp little eyes that instantly went from fast-twitch retreat to dull, blank submission. “You’re a murderer Cali” I told her. “And, I’m your accomplice. Or, is it the other way around? Damn. We did this. You know that right?” She just stood up & wagged her tail because I was talking directly at her. That always meant something good, like I had told her we’re off to go do even more fun stuff. Yes Cali. Let’s go do more fun stuff. My companion. Man’s best friend. My accomplice. The squirrel murderer. The assassin I trained so well.
When I came to Philly for grad school in 1995, my new neighbors introduced me to the cheesesteak. Growing up in Chicago, and going to undergrad in Boston, I’d never seen a cheesesteak. I didn’t even know it was a sandwich. I envisioned a bone-in ribeye with cheese on top. They introduced me to more than just a greasy sandwich. My new friends pushed me head-first into the after-the-bars-close pilgrimage to South Philly where you need to make an important choice to which you’re committed for the rest of your life. That choice is Pat’s vs. Geno’s.
The trip takes you south of the market street food stalls that Rocky ran through in the first movie, into a traditionally working class Italian neighborhood. These 24-hour cheesesteak joints face each other across Passyunk Avenue. They each take up a small city “block,” which are actually triangles. The long end of each triangle points directly at the other, almost as to say “fuck you, yeah YOU.” At night, they’re lit up with harsh neon lights, glaring all up and down their sides and on their roofs, like gamecocks challenging each other with rattling, puffed up feathers. This brightly lit corner stands out in the otherwise dark neighborhood. Philly has cleaned up a lot since I first moved there. But, back in the mid-90’s, there seemed to be a lot of danger between Center City and the great cheesesteak standoff corner. This made my first trip down for a cheesesteak seem all that much more important. It was a commitment.
I was told the only time anyone eats at both Pat’s and Geno’s is when they’re making their choice between the two. You decide. Then, you have your side of the street. You hate the other side. Just like with religion, sometimes this choice is made for you by family or friends. My friends were all Pat’s fanatics. As you would expect from zealots, they told me all about how Geno’s customers were bad people. Idiots. Broken somehow. Best to stay away from them.
Once the Pat’s vs Geno’s choice is made, your remaining years are spent clinging to whatever myths support your new belief system; “I heard someone found a mouse in their Geno’s steak last weekend. Yeah? I think I heard that, too. Knowing those people, they probably ate it anyway. Yeah, I bet you’re right. They’re crazy.” Etc. etc. I heard all the stories, and I didn’t want anything to do with those fucking Geno’s people. So, there on Passyunk Avenue I became a Pat’s cheesesteak convert. A freshly minted Pat’s proselyte. Baptized in Cheez Wiz.
My religion was handed to me, and I didn’t question it. I just quickly went about learning the ways of my new faith….Always order “Wiz Wit” to get Cheez Wiz and onions. Don’t say “onions,” that’s redundant. Mushrooms too. Order quickly. Know that the hot sauce and cherry peppers are behind you. Don’t ask for that. Know that drinks are the next window over. Only tourists ask what they should get on a cheesesteak and try to order drinks at this window. Everyone yells at them right away. The crowd hisses at the non-believers. Heathens. Interlopers.
Only tourists wrinkle up their nose at the thought of Cheez Wiz. They don’t understand. Even worse, they look down on us. They refuse the local recommendation of Cheez Wiz, and order something horrible. Probably a fucking pizza steak. Not exactly a “when in Rome” attitude. Then, while they’re eating their horrible sandwich, commenting on how it’s not as great as everyone says, you can hear them asking one another why Philadelphians like Cheez Wiz so much. They assume that just because we put it on our cheesesteaks that every house has a can of Cheez Wiz in the pantry. We bring it out for company while they sit on our plastic-wrapped couches. It’s our stilton, gouda and camembert. I know Cheez Wiz has only one purpose, and that’s on my Pat’s cheesesteak. You’re not from around here. Get out. Like many new converts, I was rabid in my beliefs and felt violent towards the non-believers.
Grad school lasted two years. Everyone else moved on. I got a job in Philly, and went about becoming a true local. I found plenty of opportunities to visit Pat’s during the light of day, and enjoy a couple cheesesteaks by myself, take my time, look around. Plenty of time to think about whether these cheesesteaks were really any good, whether others in town might be better, whether they might actually be killing me. Should I be eating something else entirely? Why am I here? Yes…I questioned my cheesesteak religion. I did a lot of thinking down there at Pat’s. That’s when I noticed the pigeons. In the light of day. Those greasy, diseased, dying pigeons. Holy shit! They’re a fucking mess.
No matter how many of our late nights in grad school ended on those greasy red fiberglass benches down at Pat’s…we never spent as much time down there as those diseased pigeons. Here is a controlled trial for you…observe any pigeon in Rittenhouse Square. Nasty bird, but healthy as far as pigeons go. Plump, neatly preened feathers, functioning motor skills and able fly around a tree, taxi cab or building without slamming into it, etc. Now, go down to Pat’s. Have a look at those pigeons.
Pigeons are essentially lazy scavengers. There is a lot of easy food for them at Pat’s, with Wiz-covered utility grade “meat” dropping all over the pavement because Joey from Camden is only eating his “Wiz Wit” with one hand. The other hand is around Gloria, claiming her as property since she’s clearly got her eye on Vinny. That smooth Vinny’s Mustang/Camero/Trans Am/Escalade/Whateverthefuckpieceofshitwithlightsunderneath is new and has a nicer stereo than Joey’s car. Bottom line, there are easy pickings there for all lazy scavengers, whether they are birds from Rittenhouse Square or boys from Camden.
So, since pigeons are essentially lazy scavengers…Pat’s scraps are all those birds eat. No need for them to go anywhere else or eat anything else. They gorge themselves on Pat’s. I’m not sure when they got there, but they can’t leave now. They can’t fly. They can’t really move much at all. They can’t hop off of that triangular block where Pat’s sits like their stranded aircraft carrier in the middle of an asphalt ocean. They stay there, and eat nothing but Pat’s. This could be me. How does a life of Pat’s end for me?
It’s difficult to tell the pigeons apart from a rat that just crawled out of a sewer. Their matted feathers almost look like the fur of a rabid, demented fox that doesn’t even have the presence of mind to clean its own shit off itself. They’re slimy, and actually look highly flammable. Do not smoke around these birds or you could both explode like Donald Trump being told his inauguration crowd size wasn’t the biggest ever, and he didn’t win in a landslide. They look like something a sexless Birkenstock-wearing Sierra club member is trying to save from the Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Sound. It really is sad what a Pat’s-only diet will do to you. They’ve lost so many feathers, they actually look possum-like. They just lay there on their side, wheezing, looking up at you with their one good eye, silently begging for you to drop that one last tidbit of oil-covered roofing material (a.k.a. “meat”) so they can choke it down and finally die. Death is all that waits for them now.
How had I never seen this before? How had I never noticed what a fucking miserable place this was, how it reeked of death? Why had I so devoutly embraced such an obviously self-destructive path? I staggered backward from the shock of all this obvious horror to which I’d been so blind, and steadied myself on a greasy red fiberglass bench. I strained to lift my head, and I slowly looked across Passyunk Avenue. To Geno’s. I asked myself just how far I had been misled, and how little I knew. I was shaken by the ultimate existential cheesesteak question. The question that my faith had never allowed me to ask. Are things different over there at Geno’s? Is life better over there at Geno’s? Heretical thoughts for sure, but I had to know. I stumbled across Passyunk Avenue, my eyes never leaving my feet. My head down. I didn’t want anyone to see my uncertainty, my fear.
The curb surrounding Geno’s triangle slowly came into view. The edge between right and wrong. The other side of Passyunk Avenue. The place I was never meant to be. I looked up and saw the base of an orange post. One of those posts surrounding the home of the worst people on earth. I wrapped my hand around the post to steady myself, and shut my eyes. I stood up straight. Counted to ten. When my eyes bolted open, the very first thing I saw was a wheezing, one-eyed, flightless, possum-like pigeon on a greasy orange fiberglass bench. It was laying on its side, wiping its beak in a Geno’s wrapper, seemingly trying to suffocate itself in the congealing wad of Wiz that one of those Geno’s people had left behind.
Their pigeons are exactly the same! Those Geno’s people. And my people. They’re exactly the same. None of this fucking matters. Why do we disagree so violently about which is best? These cheesesteak wars need to end. And, there are so many other cheesesteaks in Philly. It’s not just about Pat’s vs. Geno’s, as I was wrongly taught. There’s a big world of “Wiz Wit” out there.
There is no one cheesesteak which is truly superior to all others. Loyalty and faith are a result of choice, not because the object of your faith is empirically right or better. You choose what you like. That’s all it is. It’s an opinion. You choose your cheesesteak and I’ll choose mine. And when we make choices, we rationalize those choices, and maybe take it too far. If you think your cheesesteak chose you, or you think it’s superior to all others, this will only make you unreasonable and your cheesesteak will kill you faster. You need to keep this shit under control. Maintain your perspective. That’s up to you. Jims, Campo’s, Tony Luke’s, John’s…whatever. We are all equal denominations united by our faith in “Wiz Wit.”
That’s my assessment. Based on years of observation. Whether it is Pat’s, Geno’s or whatever…yes, that shit will kill you. I have simply made it clear what my instrument of death will be. I have made my choice. Pat’s it is. If I were going to put either one of those guns in my mouth and pull the trigger, I will clearly choose Pat’s every time. BLAM! If I’m making a choice about how to splatter my brains all over the wall behind me just like that bathroom scene in Full Metal Jacket….it’s Pat’s for me. There are many ways to kill yourself. Some choose a tall building to jump off of. Or, maybe a handful of pills. Maybe even a diseased Brazilian prostitute. I choose Pat’s. Cheesesteaks are cheesesteaks, and I choose Pat’s.
Faith is absolute. We never question our faith. No matter where it leads us. Although…maybe we should. I know that even as death comes, as I go blind in one eye, lose all my hair, look like I crawled out of the sewer and can barely step off the sidewalk surrounding that triangle on Passyunk Avenue with the red greasy benches…Wiz Wit will still have my undying devotion.